Some juicy rematches highlighted wild-card weekend, in which, well, just about any of the teams advancing wouldn’t have been a surprise.
Seattle beat Dallas early this season, and Baltimore handled the Los Angeles Chargers late. The Colts and Texans split two regular-season games. Only the Eagles and Bears didn’t face off.
“That was a different time of the season,” says Seahawks defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr., who played for Dallas. “I think we both were at different places in our growth for the season. I think we’re both two different teams right now.
“They’re coming off of a win streak and the quarterback and the running back and the receiver and the whole offense is really clicking. It’s really challenging for us to get this together, but it’s going to be a really good game. They’ve been effective certainly on the run, they’ve been effective in the pocket and with his mobility. We have our work cut out for us.”
They sure did, and the Cowboys (11-6) came out on top against the Seahawks (10-7) on Saturday night, with Ezekiel Elliott rushing for 137 yards and the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter as Dallas hung on for a 24-22 wild-card win. The loss ended a run of nine straight victories in playoff openers for the Seahawks.
The action began with the two AFC South teams meeting in Houston on Saturday, with the Colts (11-6) cruising to a 21-7 win over the Texans (11-6). Andrew Luck threw for 222 yards and two touchdowns in his hometown, and Marlon Mack ran for 148 yards and a touchdown for Indianapolis, which advanced to face the top-seeded Kansas City Chiefs in the divisional round next weekend.
On Sunday, the Chargers come across the country to Baltimore, then defending champion Philadelphia is at Chicago.
Also awaiting the results were NFC top seed New Orleans, plus No. 2s New England (AFC) and the Los Angeles Rams (NFC).
Los Angeles Chargers (12-4) at Baltimore (10-6)
Two weeks ago, the visiting Ravens beat LA and moved atop the AFC North, which they then clinched last Sunday. Now comes a redux, and the Chargers will have top running back Melvin Gordon back, a real boost.
They will need a balanced offense, with Gordon’s running complementing the passing of Philip Rivers, and a defense that can solve the speed and moves of Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson. Since Jackson replaced an injured Joe Flacco at quarterback, the Ravens are 6-1. Jackson and fellow rookie Gus Edwards give them a formidable running game to go with the No. 1-ranked defense in yards.
“They just never let you get comfortable as an offense,” Rivers says. “It’s always something trying to keep you off-balance. “It’s going to be back and forth. There will be times where we pick everything up just right and do everything just right. There will be other times where we’re going to have to, again, manage all those things that they do so well.”
Philadelphia (9-7) at Chicago (12-4)
Thirty years ago, they played the “Fog Bowl” at the old Soldier Field. There isn’t a whole lot of clarity about this matchup, either.
The Bears, paced by a strong version of the Monsters of the Midway, have been the better team all year. But they are generally playoff newbies, and they face perhaps the most resilient team in the league.
Philly has been ravaged by injuries, yet here it is, making big plays on both sides of the ball thanks greatly to the veterans who had such a big role in its roll to the title a year ago: Nick Foles, Zack Ertz, Lane Johnson, Fletcher Cox, Malcolm Jenkins. The Eagles still have to produce on the field, but their credentials are valid.
“I know how our team has really fought this last month of the season, last six weeks,” coach Doug Pederson says. “And it does give you a little comfort knowing that we’ve kind of went through this grind and we’re here now and we have to continue to grind and continue to work.
“But I don’t think it’s any easier. It’s a different team again. Different set of circumstances. We have to travel. If we’re fortunate to win, we have to be on the road again. It feels different, but the excitement is the same.”
There’s no shortage of excitement in Chicago, either. Under first-year coach Matt Nagy, the Bears have moved from last place in the usually difficult NFC North to the top.
“I would say last year when we were playing good football, even though we had struggles within the team and struggles would be, you know, everything else was going haywire around us,” DT Akiem Hicks says, “but we were able to pull together and keep fighting. And there was no quit, and you saw that this year when we got into last minutes of the game and still fighting and coming up with those wins. You could tell that guys have that fight in them.”
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